The New Unholy Alliance of Kids and Reality TV

Reality television has come for our children. And there’s not a damned thing we can do about it.

Now well over ten years old as a major television genre (I chart as its origin the debut of Survivor on CBS in 2000), the fact that “reality TV” is now concentrating more and more on kids should not come as any great surprise.

We have already had a decade of adults humiliating and demeaning themselves on reality TV for any number of things—for jobs, for love, for “glory”, even for food (Survivor, Big Brother). So, after all that, where else was there to go?

The recent debut of the Esquire Channel’s controversial Friday Night Tykes and Lifetime’s unfortunately enduring Dance Moms series are answering the question above.

Granted, kids, or more specifically the use of kids, on reality TV has been encroaching into the genre for some time. I lamented the trend—citing CBS’s Kid Nation and, of all things, PBS’s Frontier House— in 2002. Since then the pace has only picked up thanks to Toddlers & Tiaras and, additionally, via the young people seen (if not as unwilling then certainly unwitting participants) on their parents’s various “lifestyle” reality shows, consider the kids to be found on Jon + Kate, Bravo’s many Housewives series, VH1’s Mob Wives, and, of course, the younger generation of Kardashians-Jenners over on E!

Still, it’s only via Dance Moms and, now, Friday Night Tykes, that kids and reality TV have achieved a full on mash-up. And the results are not only not pretty, they can be downright disturbing.

Dance Moms, now in its fourth season, has long been the home of on-air catfights and verbal abuse played out (mostly) between dance “instructor” Abby Miller and the parents of her young students. The students, a group of young pre-teen girls, have found themselves, week in and week out, trapped within this mess, either as witnesses to or pawns in the middle of the adult-led pettiness, back-stabbing and carnage. And if that’s not disturbing enough, the pre-pubescent girls under “Miss Abby’s” tutelage are, for performances, often dressed quite provocatively, far removed from age-appropriate attire; more than one online commentator has called the show “a feast for pedophiles”.

Inevitably, everything has recently escalated from merely contentious to now being physical and, now, litigious. One of the show’s “moms”, Kelly, was arrested in early January and charged with physically attacking Miller as well as harassing her, both in person and via social media. The two women recently squared off in a New York courtroom. For the time being, Kelly has been slapped with a restraining order. True to form, rather than be embarrassed by the fisticuffs, the Lifetime channel is currently hyping the on-camera fight; the episode containing aired 11 February. (Actually, Kelly being banned from the dysfunction that is this dance studio, and this series, might be the best thing that has ever happened to her and her daughter.)

A contentious scene from Friday Night Tykes

Meanwhile, Esquire (a brand new channel that took over for the demised Style Network) has managed to get its first major publicity thanks to the airing of Friday Night Tykes. This eight part program follows the real-life Texas Youth Football Association and its mix of players all ten years old or younger and their frequently overzealous adult male coaches. Yes, they play tackle football and the coaches show no sympathy or mercy or, truth to told, much sportsmanship either. Pain, and how to inflict it, seems to be the main point of the show, along with the rage-fueled diatribes delivered by grown-ups to kids at volume-busting levels.

Though only a few episodes old, Friday Night Tykes has already drawn the wrath of the NFL, Fox Sports, and assorted national sportscasters and former football stars. The NFL, on just seeing the show’s preview trailer, labeled the program “disturbing” and then worked to distance this kid’s league from its own youth endeavors. Fox Sports, on its website, called Friday Night Tykes the “most depressing show on television.” And ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and former professional cornerback Dustin Fox have all registered their anger and disbelief via Twitter.

The mind reels over so many issues related to these series: the gender stereotypes supported by each (little girls made to look seductive, little boys implored to be violent); the hypocrisy and dichotomy of them both (if a show treating animals this way were being aired every week, would it be allowed to endure?). And, of course, the morality of the whole enterprise. Did these kids know what they were getting into? Can they get out or does mom and/or dad too badly want to be on camera?

In discussing both shows, the term “child abuse” gets thrown around amply. But is it accurate? Though neither show has (yet) shown an adult striking a child, we all know that physical assault is only part of the definition of abuse. Almost every week, these kids—especially those on Dance Moms—are witnesses to shouting matches between adults. If this was going on on a weekly basis between their parents almost any social worker would question the stability of their home environment. Apparently, the presence of TV cameras nullifies the issue.

Unfortunately, as the two shows in question—Dance Moms and Friday Night Tykes—each air on cable, they are beyond the reach of the Federal Communications Commission. (However, it should be noted, that the ownership of both these channels have ties back to the broadcast networks; Lifetime, which airs Dance Moms, is owned, ultimately, by Disney which also owns ABC and Friday Night Tykes’s Esquire channel is a subsidiary of NBC/Universal.)

Not only that, but while professional child actors have their hours, treatment and work conditions governed by California state laws (which includes provisions for setting aside a portion of their earnings) and by the Screen Actors Guild, the kids of reality TV have no such recourse. Child participants are governed only by national child labor laws which may dictate how much they can work and prohibit them from working under “hazardous” conditions but do little else to mitigate their treatment “on the job”.

With these options closed, are there other recourses available to concerned viewers?

At one time, Lifetime’s own website hosted a discussion forum devoted to Dance Moms. In the now since deleted (hmmm?) online chatroom, there was constant debate between the show’s fans and the show’s detractors with some of the latter inquiring about reporting the show’s producers and participants to the child services department of the State of Pennsylvania. (The show takes place in Pittsburgh.) Some posters went so far as to post the agency’s 800 number.

Which got me wondering: So, did they? Did anyone actually report Dance Moms? Does a TV reality show actually, legally, constitute “child abuse” and therefore necessitate an investigation? Curious, I phoned. Not surprisingly, confidentially laws prevented me from obtaining either a confirmation or a denial about the local agency’s relationship with Pittsburgh’s most famous/infamous dance studio and the slice of reality TV muck that it birthed.

As Dance Moms is still on the air and in production, the answer, as far as Pittsburgh is concerned, seems to be “no”. If an investigation was conducted, nothing of note was done, or at least nothing to change the show’s basic premise or affect its production schedule.

This is not to say, however, that public outcry doesn’t do any good. A season two episode of Dance Moms, which had Miller outfitting her pre-teen female students in body stockings to simulate nudity, was pulled from the channel after its initial airing drew a torrent of viewer complaints. (Interestingly, contacting the actual network directly these days is not so easy. Its website’s “Contact Us” option seems specifically related to web- and digital-download issues, not comments about the channel’s content.)

With the success, or at least the notoriety, of shows like Dance Moms and Friday Night Tykes, further programs of this ilk seem destined to proliferate with both the government and the industry largely unable (or unwilling) to do anything about it. As we’ve learned time and again, you just can’t legislate good parenting. That means the only options are viewers themselves, those willing to complain or, at the very least, to turn the channel. But, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be enough of them around or at least not enough to do any good.